$5 bargain bin DVD review: The Proposition

“I was a believer, but I came to this … land, and the Garden of Eden dried up.” –Jellon Lamb, bounty hunter (played by John Hurt).

I found this gem sitting in the $5 bargain bin at a Movie Starz. I knew I had picked a winner when the bloodshot-eyed clerk exclaimed, “Dude. That movie is awesome. Dude.” When I went home to shelve this DVD (in alphabetical order, thanks to my well-organized wife), I realized that I own more than my fair share of little-known movies—each with round red stickers that read, “$5.99 – Previously Owned.” If you pull off that sticker, there is another round red sticker that reads, “$7.99 – Previously Owned.” So, almost half of my DVD collection is composed of twice-rejected DVDs.

I can handle that. In fact, I have decided to subject the readers to a series of reviews (through a Christian lens) of all of the twice-rejected, indie DVDs on my bookcase.

I have a notion to start with the Proposition. (2005, Autonomous)

Put as simply as possible, The Proposition is a Western set in Australia. Instead of cowboys, there are Irish range riders. Instead of Indians, there are Aborigines. Screenwriter Nick Cave (more on him below) and Director John Hillcoat spare us all of the clichés that made Saturday Westerns so boring. The Proposition is (like a lot of Cave’s music) laden with Biblical imagery and themes; it is also (like a lot of Cave’s music) chaotic, violent, and beautiful.

“Australia. What fresh hell is this?” muses Captain Stanley, as he takes in the harsh landscape. Actually, Dorothy Parker wrote these words much later than the late 19th century, when this movie is set. Yet, the quote fits perfectly. The entire cast of characters have been cast out of Eden (read: Britain) into a fresh hell. Here, the consequences of the Fall are quite evident. The flies swarm thicker than in a Hieronymus Bosch painting; dirt cakes clothes and hair, and smiles are rare treats. By the end of the movie, no one (who is still alive) has any claim to innocence. But a few might find redemption.

As I mentioned above, Biblical themes abound. The most obvious is Cain and Abel; Charlie Burns (a sweaty, filthy, shirtless Guy Pearce) faces the possibility of killing his brother, Arthur. The youngest brother Mikey, in turn, is a prisoner who is frequently taunted, mocked, and beaten by his captors, yet he remains silent in the face of all their accusations. (I may be drawing the Christ-figure thing too strongly—Mikey spends the majority of the film whimpering, and he actually has very few lines). Mikey’s clothes are torn; he is flogged while tied to a cross (he receives something on the order of 39 lashes). Even Captain Stanley believes Mikey “is not responsible for his actions,” yet he must suffer for his brothers’ sins. Captain Stanley himself is part Satan, part Pilate: his manipulation of Charlie would have done Satan proud. Yet, when the mob comes to demand that Mikey be flogged/crucified, (“Give him to us,” demands the imperious Mr. Fletcher), Stanley plays Pilate to the hilt. (Pilate/Stanley’s wife even has a recurring dream). If there were any water in that arid land, Stanley would have washed his hands of the affair.

Mikey doesn’t have the monopoly on Christ imagery; his brother Charlie is pierced by a spear and spends the rest of the film with a hole in his side. “Holy mother of mercy!” exclaims Sam, “Look who’s raised himself from the dead!” Charlie is also the focus through which redemption becomes a possibility in this fallen land. At the risk of spoiling the plot for you, I won’t say any more on that front.

The Proposition does not pull any punches. The film is violent, brutal, and beautiful, set against a land with the same characteristics. Some have criticized The Proposition for its violence. If you can handle Platoon (which, at 13, I couldn’t), then you can handle The Proposition. In fact, the violence in this movie is so strongly tied to the plot that it does not seem gratuitous. Contrast Mikey’s flogging (which, I’ll elaborate below, is more tragic than violent) with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (in which the violence is so gratuitous, it might as well be pornography). The usual Western clichés are turned on their heads; there are no heroic shootouts; only brutal deaths and firearms that misfire, injuring their owners. At one point, Jellon Lamb exclaims, “We are white men, sir! Not beasts!” Yet the whites in the movie are brutal and uncivilized (no matter how much poetry they recite).

I have to give Cave and Hillcoat credit: they never sugarcoat Australia’s history of dealing with its Aboriginal peoples. The Australian natives are slaves at best; at worst, they are hunted and slaughtered. One of the most chilling scenes in the film is a field of freshly-slaughtered Aborigines (men, women, and children). You can hear the white soldiers who killed them drunkenly singing “Rule, Britannia” in the nearby cabin.

The music in The Proposition is very well done—probably because Nick Cave also wrote the screenplay. (Nick Cave’s music just keeps getting better; I strongly encourage you to check out the Lyre of Orpheus). As the soldiers drink and sing, we see the blood on their hands (in most cases, their right hands. Is this possibly a reference to Cave’s song, “Red Right Hand?”) In another scene, young misanthrope Samuel Stote’s haunting rendition of “O, Peggy Gordon” is juxtaposed against Mikey’s flogging. Samuel sings this song once more in the film, and this second rendition is creepy and horrifying. It’s a neat (if shocking) twist.

The two songs above are actually performed by actors in the film. The music Cave performs himself flows more through the background, serving to focus attention on this strange, eerie land. Cave’s music is haunting and melancholy; like Australia’s landscape itself, the soundtrack is somewhat detached from the awful events that transpire in The Proposition. Cave’s voice occasionally supports the soundtrack, whispering the notes as the wind howls through the Australian desert. The opening music (yes, I know I’m going backwards here) sets the stage perfectly: a child singing a hymn. Meanwhile, ancient daguerreotypes appear and disappear. These depict actual settlers, “civilized” Aborigines, and well-dressed governors. As the credits come to a close, there are a few aged, weathered photos of some of the major characters in the film. The last images we see before the movie starts depict the aftermath of the Burns gang’s unspeakable crime.

The best performance (in a film full of excellent performances) comes from Emily Watson (Martha Stanley). She is proper, clean, puritanical, and beautiful (in a land that is anything but). The most touching scenes in the film are the all-too-brief exchanges between Martha and Captain Stanley. Martha clearly loves her husband very deeply; she appears as if she is about to explode with barely-controlled passion at just the right moments in the film. Martha Stanley here brings to mind Watson’s heartbreaking, loving (and occasionally, oddly comic) performance in Breaking the Waves. It’s a shame we don’t see more of her.

Danny Huston (yes, descended from Hollywood royalty) comes in at a close second. Arthur Burns, the “villain” and object of all the fuss, comes in late in the film after he’s been built up. (“He sits up in those melancholy hills … slumbers deep like a kraken,” drones Jellon Lamb. Is Arthur Burns the white whale?) Arthur is wild and brutal, yet he is also well-read and fatherly. Huston’s performance is subtle, never overdoing the near-hour of rumor and buildup that is used to create his character. Arthur Burns is part of the most amusing exchange the film:

Samuel Stote: What’s a misanthrope?
Two Bob: A misanthrope’s a bugger that hates every other bugger.
Samuel Stote: Are we misanthropes?
Arthur Burns: Lord, no! We’re a family!

In The Proposition, no one’s hands are clean. Everyone is Fallen. Yet, loyalty and honor might be found in strange places, and the moviegoer might witness redemption. I leave it to you to find out.

Watch The Proposition if you are in a Blade Runner or Unforgiven kind of mood. This is very much a “guy film” (no pun on Guy Pearce). I wouldn’t take a date (although, if you find a date who will actually call you back after you take her to see it, kudos to you!). In short, The Proposition is definitely not a film for your Youth Group movie night, but it gives a good image of what redemption might look like, if that divine gift came to a fresh hell.


Axis II Pastoral Disorder with Priestly Features said...

"I have decided to subject the readers to a series of reviews (through a Christian lens) of all of the twice-rejected, indie DVDs on my bookcase." ... I can't wait. I'm hoping that "Tommy Boy" is next.

Malt Viquor said...

naaah ... not Indie enough. But next up will be a comedy.